Senator Simon Birmingham – Estimates questions to the Department of Defence regarding the provision of humanitarian aid in Gaza

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
June 6, 2024

Thanks, Chair, and thanks, officials. Welcome to extra time. Has Defence received any requests for assistance relevant to the provision of humanitarian aid in Gaza?

CHAIR: Welcome back, everyone. We are still in continuation with the Department of Defence. I’m going to hand the call to Senator Birmingham.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Chair, and thanks, officials. Welcome to extra time. Has Defence received any requests for assistance relevant to the provision of humanitarian aid in Gaza?

Mr Jeffrey : My colleague Bernard Philip, who manages international policy, is handling Gaza issues day to day, and Head of Military Strategic Commitments will also be able to answer those questions.

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : We have contributed a number of assets to other nations in providing humanitarian aid in Gaza, in the form of 140 parachute items to allow airdrops for other nations into Gaza. We’re also aware of US CENTCOM’s establishment of the logistics over the shore, the maritime aid corridor. We’re monitoring the process and progress of that and whether there are any contributions that might be needed to that maritime aid corridor.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So there have been two requests that have involved engagement with Defence. The first one was the parachutes. That request came from—remind me; it was one of the Middle Eastern—

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : Those requests came from other nations, regional partners, and they came in consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Which countries were we partnering for the provision of parachutes?

Mr Philip : The requests came from Jordan and the UAE.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Were they provided late last year or early this year? I vaguely recall the announcement or timing there.

Mr Philip : I’d have to check on the timing.

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : We’ll find that and get back to you, Senator.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. They were for, essentially, airdrops of aid into parts of Gaza—

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : That’s correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: that those countries were coordinating. It’s our understanding that those airdrops, as far as they relate to our assistance—the provision of 140 parachutes—have been completed.

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : That’s correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Do we know when they were completed?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : I’ll get those dates for you.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Perhaps, if you’re taking it on notice, you can tell us the nature of aid that was able to be provided. Can I go to the other one, which, as I understand from what you’ve said, would be the joint logistics over-the-shore capability that the US has established. Is that right?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : That’s correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: For the uninitiated, do you want to give us a brief assessment of what that is?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : The joint logistics over-the-shore was effectively a maritime pier. It’s a pier, jetty or wharf that has effectively been sailed up to and placed onto the shore or beach. It’s sturdy enough to allow for the delivery of equipment and/or, in this case, aid from the ocean or the sea onto the shore. The US have that capability. They have effectively placed this now on the shore at Gaza, and they are looking to deliver aid over the shore via this pier. There has been a little bit of damage due to the weather in recent times, so it’s a continual effort to manage that for the coming weeks and months.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I understand this was established as part of a program that the US put in place to be able to move aid from a coordination point in Cyprus over a short-ish maritime distance to Gaza. Is that right?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : That’s the maritime aid corridor from Cyprus to the pier over the shore.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Great. Thank you. What engagement has Australia had, and were there requests for Australia to assist with the construction operation, through maintenance or otherwise, of the JLOTS harbour?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : The US has requested support from partners where able. We’ve looked at what we could provide by way of that sort of support. We provided advice to government.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: When and how did the US request support from partners?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : The usual channels for the US—in this case CENTCOM—would request five air liaison officers to put out the initial indications of capability or interest. That would come through an informal channel. Then a more formal approach might be made in these sorts of cases from capital, so to speak—from Washington, D.C. to Canberra—to formalise those requests.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Both of those things—

Mr Moriarty : Senator Birmingham, could I say: there is a dialogue going on between the United States and other partners about what their preferences might be and what countries might be able to contribute. As Air Vice Marshal Chappell said, we’ve provided some advice to government, but we are in communications with US authorities about those issues.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Mr Moriarty. Again, for clarity, there are requests made through the usual channels of US CENTCOM seeking indications of capability and interest, as you put it, and also formal processes through the capital in terms of engagement with our embassy in DC. Would that be what you mean, Air Vice Marshal?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : It doesn’t always work exactly the same way, but the embassies are often involved. Sometimes it might be department to department. It might be Defence to Defence; it might be a state to Foreign Affairs or a combination of all those. The conversations are had, and the requests are formalised through those processes. But, as the secretary alluded to, the conversations are always ongoing. As situations change, and as other partners might be able to contribute a certain element, then, again, the considerations continue to adjust dynamically.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So when was the understanding of capability and interest, in providing support for the humanitarian wharf in Gaza, first sought of Australia from the US?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : From the US—I would have to come back to you on the exact dates. Again, the initial concept of the JLOTS, or the joint logistics over-the-shore, was raised some time ago in the US systems. So we were aware of the concept, but them looking to pull that capability together, moving it from where it’s maintained to the Mediterranean and Cyprus and then having it ready to establish onshore was a process of some time. I’ll come back to you with the dates on when we meaningfully understood what request for support might have been made by the US.

Mr Jeffrey : Senator, just to clarify something on these issues, as the secretary mentioned, it’s not necessarily a request of Australia. It’s usually the case in these circumstances that the US will gather together a range of partners and allies and talk about how we can sustain. I think it’s a request to a range of countries. I appreciate that’s a subtle distinction, but, for the clarity of the record, it’s usually in these cases a direct request not of Australia but, rather, of a group of countries on how we can work together to provide support or humanitarian assistance.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Mr Jeffrey. That’s a subtle distinction, but I always appreciate extra information. Air Vice-Marshal, was it days, weeks or months ago that the request was made?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : The initial indications to various partners, including us, would have been, I would say, in the order of months ago. The deployment of that capability by the US has taken some time as well.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What steps have you taken since receiving the initial request months ago for understanding as to whether Australia has the capability, interest, desire and willingness to be able to commit? I understand the last part of that is a matter for government, which we’ll come back to, but what steps has Defence taken in terms of assessing the capability of Australia? Do we have particular skills that would be relevant to the construction, maintenance and operation of this type of humanitarian wharf—the joint logistics over-the-shore capability?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : I’ll come back to you with the date on which this process started. However, we will look internally as to how we could contribute. We need to understand, working with the US and other partners, who is likely to be able to contribute what to this capability. We need to understand a number of other factors: whether we include the security situation and how that security situation is going to be managed; which partners may be providing security cordon to protect both the pier itself and any Defence personnel that were involved on the pier or in the vicinity of the pier; and how they’re going to be supported from an accommodation perspective—all those factors. Again, the situation in Gaza is well known, so where you have your people housed, fed and looked after, as well as secured, are all important factors. So we’re working constantly with the US and other partners to understand that and internally understand how we could best contribute, noting all of those factors.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Obviously, there are different factors here. In our understanding, is there any expectation of Australian contribution to, literally, trucks delivering aid once it’s actually reached Gaza, or is there, in fact, a level of assessment and engagement about the wharf construction, the wharf operation, the wharf maintenance and sustainment and those particularities that relate to getting to the point of Gaza and to the point of unloading, distribution being a matter for the aid and humanitarian agencies, the Gazan authorities—such as they exist—and the like?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : All those factors are part of initially gaining understanding of what might be required and, from partners, non-government agencies and organisations, who might be contributing what to this particular capability. Once that’s understood, then we can better understand how we might contribute and then provide that advice to government.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You have provided advice to government, haven’t you? I think that’s what both you and Mr Moriarty have said that?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : That’s correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I want to stick with the question of capability for a moment. As a result of our emergency relief activities in different parts of the Pacific and places that often don’t have established wharfs or the like, does Australia have particular capability that aligns with something like this humanitarian wharf?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : It would be fair to characterise it as: we have elements of capability that we could provide to this and it then becomes a matter for government as to how we best contribute.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: We hope this changes in the next few years but, at present, if it was a discussion about operating nuclear-powered submarines, we’d have to say we don’t yet have the capability and we’d know it was an open-and-shut case. In this instance, I would have thought that we actually do, potentially, have real capabilities for this type of temporary wharf structure, delivery of humanitarian assistance—the types of things that, as a country, we proudly do in our region. Am I mistaken, or do we actually have those types of capabilities and experience in operating temporary wharfs or the like?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : We have a number of capabilities. We do not obviously have a JLOTS capability, so we could not deliver a JLOTS capability—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Itself.

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : I think your questions are going to: noting how other partners, both government and non-government, are contributing here, then the delivery of the aid from the pier onto the shore and beyond is not something that we have had to factor into our considerations.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is this type of capability something that Defence has collaborated with the US on either in operations or in training environments—on Talisman Sabre or elsewhere?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : Yes. Talisman Sabre is a good example.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So we’ve done this type of joint operation with this type of capability through Talisman Sabre with the US before?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : That’s correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: When was that?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : That was 2023.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: That’s quite recently. When was advice provided to government in response to the US request?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : I’ll look to confirm the dates.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Are we talking months ago, when the request came in, or days ago, or somewhere in between?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : I’ll confirm the dates.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Could we try and confirm those relatively quickly, please?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In terms of the capabilities that we have established that Defence has as part of joint ops through Talisman Sabre and the like, are they part of 10 Terminal Regiment in the Army, or are they established elsewhere? I am checking something that somebody has suggested to me here.

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : I’ll defer to colleagues to answer that question. The scenario of Talisman Sabre 2023 was probably not the same scenario that we’re looking at here for this particular activity. But the actual of where the capability is housed, I leave Army to answer.

Gen. Campbell : There are a range of capabilities across the ADF that might be considered in terms of contribution, subject, as the air vice-marshal has noted, to government decision to partner contribution to lead-nation requirement and to the setting in the Gaza. Elements of that particular regiment you’ve mentioned, sure, but the specifics really go to advice to government. So it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment at this stage.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Major General Smith, I think you were just about to deal with the specifics that CDF referenced from my question?

Major Gen. Smith : Your question is: just what capabilities do we have? Is that right?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And particularly whether they were in 10th Terminal Regiment.

Major Gen. Smith : Yes, they’re in the 10th Force Support Battalion.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Right. Do those capabilities continue? They haven’t been disbanded or disestablished?

Major Gen. Smith : No. That’s right.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Did Defence consult with other agencies in preparation of its advice to government?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Which agencies?

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : We’ve talked to Foreign Affairs and Trade and Attorney-General’s for these types of considerations.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And you’ve then provided that advice to government to inform the response or with the response to the request. It sounds like Defence has been fairly thorough in relation to assessing its capabilities here—that it does have capabilities, that it’s obviously worked through the different options, as CDF has indicated, as to where Defence contributions would be possible. Minister, why has the government not reached decision yet, if the advice has reached government?

Senator McAllister: The advice to government, to date, was initial in nature. It provided background. There is as yet no request for decision.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: There is as yet no request for decision?

Senator McAllister: By which I mean not a decision brief.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So have ministers gone back and asked for more information?

Senator McAllister: We are waiting for further advice from Defence and from the ADF about the approach.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: When did the initial advice go to ministers?

Senator McAllister: I’ll take that on notice. I don’t have that with me.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I think we all appreciate the gravity and the seriousness of the situation in Gaza, and Australia has rightly provided some elements of funding assistance. If there was an opportunity for us to provide practical assistance as well to enable more humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza, why is it taking as long as it seems to be to respond to those requests from some months ago and to form a policy position about the deployment of those resources?

Senator McAllister: I think you’ve already heard advice from officials about some of the factors that they are contemplating as they work through what kind of contribution might be possible. I think Air Vice-Marshal Chappell indicated to you that, in addition to capability, some of the other considerations go to security and accommodation. Those are being worked through in the dialogue that’s already been referenced in their testimony this morning.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In the time since the US put out this request to partners, they’ve relocated the wharf, they’ve built it on the site and they’ve begun operations. It’s had damage from weather events that they’re seeking to repair. So the US has gotten on and done it, got it started and it’s all underway, with those weather related damages of course in place, but Australia hasn’t even managed to make its mind up? That seems to be where we’re at.

Mr Jeffrey : As we discussed earlier, and as Air Vice-Marshal Chappell has just mentioned, we’ve been involved in discussions with the United States and other partners around humanitarian support to the crisis in Gaza. But your question presupposes that there has been a direct request to which Australia has agreed. These conversations typically—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: No, it doesn’t presuppose that. In fact, it’s quite apparent that Australia hasn’t agreed to either a direct or an indirect request.

Mr Jeffrey : Well, your question suggests that there was a discussion which revolved around a specific capability that it was agreed that Australia could usefully contribute. These conversations, as Air Vice Marshal Chappell has mentioned, are often about who is best placed to provide assistance in a manner that’s going to be in the time of relevance. As a general proposition, we tend to observe a division of labour with our international partners. If it’s happening outside the Indo-Pacific, obviously we will look to provide assistance where we can usefully do so, but, if other partners can respond more rapidly and with a greater capability, it’s often those ones who are in the region or closer by. So I just want to provide that caveat, without going into the content of advice we’ve provided. Being in discussions with the United States about how we provide assistance does not automatically lead to an agreement that Australia is going to provide this particular capability set.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: No, yet equally, quite rightly, Defence has taken the request seriously enough to prepare advice for government and to undertake what seems to be thorough analysis. That seems an entirely appropriate thing to do, given both the gravity of the situation in Gaza and the closeness of our alliance with the US. In particular, only last year, in Exercise Talisman Sabre, we were training with the US in the deployment of these very capabilities. So it seems as if there’s a range of reasons for it to have rightly been taken seriously by Defence. They’ve given advice to government. Now the minister’s saying that in fact government hasn’t yet been presented with the information to make a decision. That’s not what I took from Mr Moriarty or Air Vice Marshal Chappell before. Have you received a request back from ministers asking for more information?

Mr Moriarty : We are engaged with the minister and the minister’s office, updating on this situation and talking about the evolving situation and about how the efforts of the Americans and other partners to provide relief are going. So there is an interchange and a flow of information.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Have you had those discussions directly with the DPM, Secretary?

Mr Moriarty : I have spoken to the DPM directly about the situation in Gaza and what others are doing. I’m not sure about the CDF, but that’s probably the same. Yes, we have engaged directly with the DPM.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: About JLOTS in particular?

Mr Moriarty : In the general sense about which border crossings are open, what the flow of aid is, how supplies are getting in and what countries are thinking about as the next steps in terms of—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Sure. I’d be shocked beyond belief if there weren’t discussions with the DPM about the overall situation in Gaza and Israel and, of course, a range of different security and military considerations. Have you, Secretary, or you, CDF, had discussions with the minister specifically about the JLOTS request for assistance from partner nations that went out from the United States and Australia’s response to it?

Gen. Campbell : I have, yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. Has the DPM expressed a sense of urgency about coming to a resolution or a response on this?

Gen. Campbell : I wouldn’t discuss the content of that conversation, but there is a continuing interest by government in our understanding of the proposal, the concept and the execution of the JLOTS capability—hence the initial advice, as the minister has noted, to give a common basis for conversation about whether or not, and at what point, we feel we are in a position to offer the potential for decision advice about the question of the opportunities for Australia to consider contributing some element or elements of the JLOTS capability that is from shore to shore, essentially.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What information is absent or lacking or required for government to be able to make a decision on this matter?

Gen. Campbell : I think that it’s a combination of understanding the functioning of the JLOTS as a total system, the contribution of other countries’ complementary capabilities and the evolving—quite evolving—security environment in which this capability is being delivered.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is there any timeline that Defence and/or government are working towards for a resolution and a response to the US?

Gen. Campbell : We would wish to give government advice as soon as we feel that we are in a position to do so.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And you’ve already provided that advice, but now you’re having to—

Gen. Campbell : As in providing additional advice as soon as we feel we’re in a position to do so.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: How long do we think that will take?

Gen. Campbell : I can’t give you that. That would be a guess.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister, is there an instruction of urgency to be given to the department and to—

Gen. Campbell : Senator, I’m not suggesting it’s months away; I’m simply saying that, as soon as we’re in a position to offer advice, we will.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: If assistance is provided, would this operate under no-win no-loss operations?

Gen. Campbell : I think that’ll be a matter for dialogue with our colleagues in the Department of Finance. We would engage with the Department of Finance on it.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Birmingham. Senator Shoebridge now has the call.

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